Thursday, November 19, 2009

Online bookstores reveal our future

There are a lot of people that like to predict doom. It's an easy thing to do. After all, if you're wrong, that's a good thing, right?

In my lifetime, as in yours, a lot has changed. And the pace of change appears to be picking up speed. Or maybe that's another part of ageing. The more we can remember, the more items we have to compare with what we have now and it seems that more things are different. And they are.

Our information revolution has made it easier for doomsayers to operate. No matter what they're talking about, the Internet makes it easy to find evidence that just might prove their prediction. The online arguments against H1N1 vaccination stand up as evidence of that.

What's more interesting however, are online discussions that cut through the doomsayers arguments, exposing them as self-serving nonsense and opening up a more reasoned look at the issue and perhaps stimulating some honest discussion about the relative merits for and against. OK, I admit it. Deep down, I'm still an idealist.

That kind of confusing, round-about opening brings me to Clay Shirky. He's an interesting guy. He's not a glass half empty or a glass half full type. He's more of the "Hey, look at that glass," sort. He doesn't post to his blog that frequently, but when he does, people pay attention. He's one of those thinkers who people pay attention to because what he says always seems to make so much sense.

His most recent post is called Local Bookstores, Social Hubs, and Mutualization. Unlike my struggles with clarity in the opening to this post, Shirky grabs the reader's attention right from the start. Here's the first two paragraphs:
Last month, the American Booksellers Association published an open letter to the Justice Department, asking Justice to investigate Wal-Mart, Target, and Amazon after they lowered prices of best-selling books to under $10. The threat, the ABA says, is dire: “If left unchecked, these predatory pricing policies will devastate not only the book industry, but our collective ability to maintain a society where the widest range of ideas are always made available to the public, and will allow the few remaining mega booksellers to raise prices to consumers unchecked.”

Got that? Lower prices will lead to higher prices, and cheap books threaten to reduce the range of ideas in circulation. And don’t just take the ABA’s word for it. They also quote John Grisham’s agent and the owner of a book store, who both agree that cheap books are a horrible no-good very bad thing. So bad, in fact, that the Department of Justice must get involved, to shield the public from the scourge of affordable reading. (Just for the record, the ABA is also foursquare against ebooks being sold more cheaply than paper books, and thinks maybe Justice should look into that too.)
He goes on to effectively sever the arguments of the ABA, among others, that lower prices for books are a threat to knowledge. Which is the same conclusion most people will come to if they think about it for very long. From there, he speculates on the future of bookstores in the Internet age.

If you've never read Shirky's stuff, go ahead and check out this post and grab the RSS feed. I think you'll like it. He has a disconcerting habit of taking issues that I've been mulling over and talking about them in such a clear and straightforward manner that I can't remember why I was puzzled by them in the first place. And I like writing that does that.

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